- An Interview with Jan PlamperOn the History of Emotions
Jan Plamper, Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, was among the first scholars in Soviet and Russian history to engage the burgeoning field of the history of emotions.
Trained in history at Brandeis University and the University of California, Berkeley, Plamper is perhaps best known for The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (2012), a book that grew out of his PhD dissertation.1 His first forays into the history of emotions began around 2003, with a project, still ongoing, about fear among soldiers in World War I. In those years, Plamper helped organize a series of conferences and conference panels dedicated to the history of emotions, resulting in three collective publication ventures: a special issue of Slavic Review and two co-edited volumes, Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv: Podkhody k kul´turnoi istorii emotsii (In the Realm of Russian Feelings: Approaches to the Cultural History of Emotions) and Fear: Across the Disciplines.2 Plamper also organized and participated in two printed round tables with leading participants in the emotions field: Peter Stearns, Barbara Rosenwein, William Reddy, Nicole Eustace, Eugenia Lean, and Julie Livingston.3
As early as 2009, Plamper could point to a large set of imperial Russian and Soviet historians who made active use of emotions as a historical [End Page 453] category in print: Mark D. Steinberg, Catriona Kelly, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Árpád von Klimó, Malte Rolf, Ronald Grigor Suny, Glennys Young, and Alexander Martin.4 Since then, the field has expanded considerably, with historians continuing to find use in interdisciplinary approaches, drawing from anthropology, sociology, psychology (including neuroscience), and philosophy.5 Yet no Russian or Soviet historian has gone farther in investigating the history of emotions—and the history of the history of emotions—than Plamper himself, whose German-language monograph was translated into English as The History of Emotions: An Introduction.6
Plamper’s leading role in developing the history of emotions in the Russian/Soviet context and his personal experience as an interlocutor among the academic cultures of four countries—the United States, Russia, Germany, and Britain—make him a perfect person to discuss these issues. Alongside his current work on fear in World War I, Plamper is writing a popular history of migration to West and East Germany after World War II. The book concentrates on the life stories of individuals to capture the experiences of various groups and generations of immigrants, ultimately aiming to furnish a “usable past” for the new Germany emerging from the Syrian refugee crisis. [End Page 454]
Though the phrase “history of emotions” has become dominant in designating a new scholarly field in Anglophone literature, historians have also used various other terms to designate their topics: most notably, feeling and affect. Does the choice of term matter, or are we playing with words?
“Emotions” is the best choice, because it includes dimensions of appraisal, signification, object-directedness, and consciousness—what these dimensions mean will become clear in a moment. “Emotions” can be replaced by “feelings,” terms that are synonymous in current English. By contrast “affects,” especially in affect theory—a cross-disciplinary field in cultural, literary, visual, and so on studies—have come to designate nonconscious, nonsignified, inchoate states that are neither directed at an object (fear of what?) nor subject to volition or evaluation.7 In the classroom I demonstrate the difference between emotion/feeling and affect by suddenly clapping my hands. The milliseconds it takes my students to evaluate the audial stimulus of my clapping hands and to determine that it does not pose a threat to their survival are the time in which affect is operative: their bodies are on high alert, their pupils dilate, their hearts race; they cannot yet think, let alone articulate verbally what their bodies are doing, what they are feeling. Or to use the classic example of the encounter with a snake in the woods, in affect theory the snake is a stimulus per se, constituting a threat to my life because it posed a threat in the distant past. It is an evolutionary vestige. It activates the amygdala in the old, limbic part of...